GLORY & BEAUTY
Rabbi David Walk
Probably my favorite verse in the whole Tanach (Hebrew Bible) is, 'What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micha 6:8).' The word I translated as 'humbly' is hatzneah. In Modern Hebrew we use the word tzniyut to mean modesty in dress and behavior. Many ultra orthodox neighborhoods are famous (or infamous) for tzniyut committees which enforce rules of modesty in dress, usually just by gentle reminders. I believe that this idea implies that in all aspects of my life I should be low key and unpretentious. We seem to be against a flamboyant style in dress or behavior. Especially in my spiritual life, I shouldn't be acting in a 'Hey, look at me!' manner. This concept seems to be in opposition to a major idea in this week's Torah reading. At the beginning of the instructions to make sacred vestments for the Cohanim we are told: Make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for glory and beauty (Exodus 28:2). Is this a contradiction to the marvelous advice given by the prophet Micha? Well, I think that there's an article length answer to that question.
This week's Torah reading is almost entirely concerned with priestly haberdashery (I love that word, which means pertaining to male clothing.). We have lavish descriptions of the eight garments worn by the Cohen Gadol during his service in the Holy Temple. The colors alone (scarlet, purple, gold, blue) are eye catching, with precious stones as well. And there are lesser depictions of the four garments worn by the regular priests for their ministries. I'm embarrassed to report that my eyes glaze over when the Torah starts to describe all this finery. My mind reels with the idea that it's so important what the priest wears and how it must be manufactured. Maybe one could make a case that there are parts of Torah for the military minded, there are sections for the legal eagles, passages for those with literary aspirations and here we have a whole portion for those interested in the fashion industry. After all garment manufacture has been a Jewish business for many years, from Levi Straus to Dianne von Furstenberg to Isaac Mizrahi. Even though there might be merit to the idea that different parts of our Torah appeal to different readerships, I'd like to think that we can identify with the entirety, and learn something from every facet.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the point that many references to finery, like Yosef in Egypt and Mordechai in Persia, seem to be inserted in to the text to denigrate the importance of these robes of office. As if the Gentiles do this, but we don't. He even points out that the Hebrew word for garment, begged, comes from the root for the word for betrayal or treason. So, I guess that we don't say that the clothes make the man, and that explains why my clothes don't make me look as handsome as I really am. In his answer Rabbi Sacks suggests that the Cohen is the antithesis of the charismatic leader, usually a prophet. The prophet needs no uniform or ritual apparel because he/she leads with strength of character. The cohen, on the other hand, represents stability and the continuity of the Temple ritual. The office dwarfs the official. Rabbi Sacks then suggests that this is the reason why our parsha is the only one after Genesis which doesn't mention Moshe by name. As the charismatic leader par excellance he doesn't belong in this section emphasizing hereditary office, which is highlighted by ritual robes.
On the other hand, we can look at this issue from the aspect of esthetics. How do we as Jews feel about beauty and its value to our spiritual enhancement? Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, may God grant him a speedy and complete recovery, explains that there is a commandment of hidur mitzvah. This obligation is translated as adorning a mitzvah. Rav Lichtenstein notes that this precept comes in two varieties: excellence of performance and beautification of the performance. On Chanukah we add a candle every day to make the performance more impressive and expressive. However on Sukkot we buy an etrog which has greater beauty. So, we see that beauty can add to the quality of a mitzvah under the correct circumstances. What are the correct circumstances? Rav Lichtenstein uses the example of the Matriarchs to explain. They are described as physically beautiful, but this only has significance because we believe that this visible loveliness is a reflection of an inner splendor. Rav Lichtenstein notes that pilgrimage to the Holy Temple required a major effort and motivation on the part of the participant, therefore making the Temple more magnificent added to and encouraged the exertion required to undertake the difficult travel required. But he warns that beauty for its own sake can be counterproductive. Beauty must be used as a means to a greater goal, not as the goal itself. Rav Lichtenstein quotes an anonymous English writer who once commented: "Clothes have turned us into humans, but we must take care that they do not turn us into wardrobes."
Clothes don't make the man, but can enhance one's performance. It is fascinating to note that synagogues in America have generally become less lavish in the past generation. Although many explanations can be given for this phenomenon, I think that the relative simplicity is in keeping with an attitude that regular, frequent prayer services don't demand the same level of magnificence that a special pilgrimage might demand.
We're proud when we hear that gentile visitors to the Holy Temple commented that it was the most beautiful building in the world. But the individual cohen had to remember that his splendid appearance was for the glory of God not for his self aggrandizement. Beauty is wonderful when it encourages deeper stirrings, but dangerous when it is superficial. Remember: It was beauty (that) killed the beast.